WASHINGTON » Newt Gingrich arrived in Washington in January 1979 as a brash congressman dreaming of a Republican revival. Not quite four years later, frustrated at the pace of change, he quietly sought counsel from a man he had once worked to defeat: Richard M. Nixon.
Gingrich entered national politics in his party’s liberal wing; as a young graduate student in 1968, he campaigned for Nixon’s opponent, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Now, over a dinner in New York, the disgraced former president instructed the impatient lawmaker to build a coalition — the noisier the better.
“He said, ‘You cannot change the country unless you are interesting and attract attention,”’ Gingrich recalled in a speech years later. “And to do that, you have to have a group.”
Gingrich promptly founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, a band of activist lawmakers who helped usher in the 1994 Republican revolution that made him his party’s first House speaker in 40 years.
But many of the conservatives who rode to power with Gingrich ultimately deserted him, while he denounced them as “petty dictators” and “the perfectionist caucus” in the waning days of his tumultuous four-year speakership.
Today as he seeks the Republican nomination for president, Gingrich, 68, remains a paradoxical figure for conservatives to embrace — a man who can “bring us together, and alienate the hell out of us,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who as a House member tried to oust Gingrich in an unsuccessful 1997 coup. Many credit him with advancing their cause, yet many are deeply suspicious of him.
A look at Gingrich’s earliest days in politics, and the evolution of his thinking, helps explain the rocky relationship between Gingrich and the movement he once led. He emerges as more of pragmatist than a purist, a believer in “activist government” whose raw ambition made colleagues uneasy, provoking questions about whether he was motivated by conservative ideals, personal advancement — or both.
On the campaign trail, Gingrich calls himself the “conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.” As he seeks to appeal to Tea Party voters, he often invokes a conservative icon, Ronald Reagan. But some say he more closely resembles another Republican president.
“Gingrich is more Nixonian than he is Reaganite,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and the first chairman of the Conservative Opportunity Society, who is on good terms with Gingrich but supports Romney. “Not in the Watergate sense, in the strategic sense. He is not an ideologue.”
A MAN WITH A PLAN
From the moment he entered politics, Newt Gingrich was a man with a plan to remake the Republican Party — with himself at the top.
He made little secret of his ambitions when, at 25 and a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans, he signed on with the 1968 Rockefeller campaign. One night, the man who would go on to describe himself as a “transformative figure” and “definer of civilization” stunned fellow volunteers by telling them he thought he could one day be president.
“He was very into himself,” said Kit Wisdom, a leader of the Rockefeller Louisiana campaign, “and in charge of everything.”
His political philosophy was “in the middle,” Wisdom said. He was anti-tax, and hawkish on defense, but a strong environmentalist and advocate of civil rights. He courted black supporters and later told his biographer, Mel Steely, that he felt “a moral obligation to support the candidate who was intensely for integration.”
But while he may have felt a moral obligation, Gingrich also saw political opportunity as a Republican in a South dominated by conservative Democrats. He believed the future of the party in the South was to be “the moderate, progressive alternative to the old-line Dixiecrats,” Weber said.
And he saw a chance to move quickly up the party ranks.
He made his first bid for office in 1974, while a history professor at West Georgia College, now the University of West Georgia, by challenging Rep. John J. Flynt Jr., a conservative Democrat. Gingrich knew he could not “out-conservative” Flynt, one former aide recalled. So he sought to paint his opponent as corrupt, a tactic he would later use against Democrats like the House Speaker Jim Wright.
He lost that year, and again to Flynt in 1976. But two years later, when the seat opened up, Gingrich tacked right, ran on a traditional anti-tax Republican platform and won. His disdain for the Republican leadership was evident; in a speech to College Republicans that year, he railed against Nixon and Gerald R. Ford for their failure to build a majority.
“They have done a terrible job, a pathetic job,” Gingrich thundered, unaware that his words were being recorded. “In my lifetime, literally in my lifetime — I was born in 1943 — we have not had a competent national Republican leader. Not ever!”
Gingrich went on: “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire, but are lousy in politics.”
IDEAS, YES. THEORIES, NO.
In Washington, Gingrich quickly became known as an ideas man. He aligned himself with Jack Kemp, the New York congressman whose advocacy of tax cuts and civil rights fit with Gingrich’s own brand of Republicanism, and he backed Reagan in 1980.
Even so, Gingrich’s ideas made some in his own party nervous.
In 1979, his first year in office, Gingrich was among a handful of freshman Republicans to vote to create the federal Department of Education, a vote that many conservatives, who want to abolish the department, still hold against him. (Today Gingrich says he wants to “dramatically shrink” the agency.)
Ever the history professor, he gave long, meandering speeches on the House floor, calling himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” and extolling the virtues of “activist government.” When President Jimmy Carter proposed an Alaskan wildlife reserve, Gingrich voted in favor, breaking with his party.
His support for more federal investment in transportation, science, space programs and technology rattled libertarians and free market conservatives; the Club for Growth, an advocacy group, complains that Gingrich has “a recurring impulse to insert the government in the private economy.” In a 1984 interview with Mother Jones Magazine, Gingrich was unapologetic.
“I believe in a lean bureaucracy,” he said, “but not no bureaucracy.”
In intellectual circles, Gingrich raised eyebrows; he drew inspiration not from theorists like Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek, but from futurists like Isaac Asimov and Alvin Toffler.
“I call Newt an experiential conservative, as opposed to a deeply philosophical conservative,” Paul M. Weyrich, a conservative activist, once told the PBS program Frontline. “He does not have a deeply held philosophy, say, biblically based philosophy as some of us do.”
The culture wars that energized Christian conservatives held little interest for the new congressman from Georgia. “Newt’s basic inclination is to let people be people — if it’s not against the law then it’s none of our business,” said Steely, who taught history alongside Gingrich and later worked in his congressional office.
Over time, Gingrich would develop what his campaign now calls “a consistent pro-life record” on abortion. But early in his career, when his aides pressed him to take a position, he resisted, said Steven M. Gillon, a University of Oklahoma historian who examined Gingrich’s congressional papers while researching a book, “The Pact.”
“I would never vote against my conscience,” the book quotes Gingrich as telling his staff in 1983. “On the other hand, I also make it a habit to have relatively few things I feel bitterly moral about.”
ADVICE FROM AN OLD HAND
The year 1982 was dismal for Republicans; with unemployment topping 10 percent, the party lost 26 seats in the midterm elections. Gingrich feared the Reagan revolution was slipping away, and along with it his dreams of building a Republican majority — and becoming speaker.
He had already spent considerable time trying. In 1980, Gingrich staged an event on the steps of the Capitol for Republicans to publicly commit to a “GOP National Contract” that pledged tax and spending cuts, much like the Contract With America later would in 1994. He wanted a national strategy for Republicans, a novel thought at the time. But the event gained little traction.
Gillon, the University of Oklahoma historian, sees Gingrich during this period as going through a kind of “identity crisis, looking for some way that he could emerge from the pack.”
His dinner with Nixon in the fall of 1982 was an attempt to do just that. Even in exile, the former president remained a savvy political observer and kept in touch with Republicans in Washington. That night, the two men spent three hours together, along with Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne. (They met again in Washington in 1984 when Gingrich arranged for Nixon to talk about policy with House Republican freshmen.)
Gingrich later recounted the New York dinner in his book “Lessons Learned the Hard Way.” “I told him I thought the Republicans at long last ought to become the majority in the House,” Gingrich wrote. “He shook his head and said that the House Republican Party had little impact and received little attention from the press because it was so boring.”
Back in Washington, Gingrich asked a Republican pollster, Robert Teeter, to test public reaction to the phrases “conservative opportunity state” and “liberal welfare state,” said Frank Gregorsky, then Gingrich’s chief of staff. The responses came back three to one in favor of the first. Gregorsky remembers his boss as ecstatic, convinced he had found a winning formula.
“The essence of Newt,” Gregorsky said, “is that he’s a marketing genius. He’s not a philosopher or an ideologue.”
For Gingrich, it was an important turning point.
He quickly began recruiting members for his new “Conservative Opportunity Society” — he later called the group a “direct descendant of Richard Nixon’s advice” — and put together a companion coalition of like-minded outside activists. They met every Wednesday to plot strategy. Participants remember him as a man in motion, always searching for the perfect catchphrase or issue for Republicans to exploit.
“He was constantly probing with bayonets,” said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate, who attended those sessions, “constantly trying to figure out what would work.”
Over the next decade, Gingrich established himself as a partisan firebrand and the undisputed leader of a bold new conservative movement. “Conservatives liked him because he was so bombastic, so willing to take on the liberals,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. But some had nagging suspicions, Feehery said, that Gingrich was “more moderate personally than he lets on.”
His fascination with tactics, his past as a Rockefeller Republican and his grandiose statements bred mistrust. Some wondered if he was interested in advancing conservative ideals, or his own political future. “I have an enormous personal ambition,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.”
‘THE ULTIMATE PRAGMATIST’
Nearly a decade later, on the morning after election night 1994, the soon-to-be House speaker could barely contain himself. He vowed to stamp out the “Great Society, counterculture McGovernick” legacy of Democrats and to put his own conservative imprint on U.S. society.
Nixon, who died earlier that year, did not live to see his unlikely protege’s triumph. But he approved of Gingrich’s fiery tactics, according the book “Nixon Off the Record,” by Monica Crowley, the conservative commentator and onetime Nixon research assistant. “He’s a bomb-thrower — and we need him,” Crowley quoted the former president as saying.
Yet for all his relentless promotion of the right, Gingrich had also demonstrated his cool calculus in his climb to the top. In 1989, in a hard-fought race for Republican whip, Gingrich challenged Ed Madigan, who had the backing of another prominent conservative, Tom DeLay, the future Republican leader.
Sherwood L. Boehlert, a moderate Republican from upstate New York who is now retired, remembers Gingrich courting moderates, and promising them a role in leadership if he won. He did, by two votes.
“I always thought of Gingrich as darn near the ultimate pragmatist,” Boehlert said.
Those close ties with moderates, and Gingrich’s willingness to compromise with President Bill Clinton, ultimately caused him trouble with his party’s right flank, especially the zealous revolutionaries he brought to Washington — a group much like the Tea Party lawmakers of today. Many found him dismissive and condescending, and viewed his management style as chaotic.
“Gingrich talked a lot about the importance of listening, but he was often not interested in discussing our ideas,” one member of the freshman class of 1994, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, now a senator, later wrote in a book about his years in Washington, “Breach of Trust.”
Beyond complaints about style, there were issues of substance. Within Gingrich’s fractious Republican caucus, deficit hawks repeatedly accused him of abandoning their top priority, cutting federal spending. His decision to end the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 proved a particular sore point; conservatives said Gingrich had caved in to a White House that outmaneuvered him.
“He was like a whipped dog who barked, yet still cowered, in Mr. Clinton’s presence,” Coburn wrote.
In 1997, Gingrich proposed backing away from a promise he had made in the Contract With America to cut spending on congressional committees by a third. He said the money was necessary for congressional oversight of the White House.
The rebellious lawmakers balked. Some, including Graham and Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC host, demanded that Gingrich stick to the contract — or step down.
“Newt’s never been a conservative,” Scarborough said. “He is an opportunist.”
On the campaign trail, Gingrich has said the notion that he is not conservative is “laughable.” (The American Conservative Union, an advocacy group, says that during his two decades in Congress Gingrich voted conservative 90 percent of the time.) His defenders say he was simply engaged in the difficult, sometimes messy, business of governing.
“The reality is that Newt was trying to hold together a very close majority,” said Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman who remains a close ally of Gingrich, “and that meant sometimes you had to do things that were popular across the whole conference, and not just the things that a handful of conservatives wanted.”
But by November 1998, when Republicans lost five seats in the midterm elections, House conservatives were threatening to vote against Gingrich’s re-election as speaker. Concluding that he had become too polarizing to lead, he announced he would quit the speakership, and Congress.
In his headier moments, Gingrich had boldly proclaimed himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times.” Now, in his final days on Capitol Hill, he sounded bitter. On the day he announced his resignation from Congress, Gingrich convened a conference call with fellow Republicans. In it, the leader of the 1994 conservative rebellion blamed the conservatives he had brought to power for his political fall.
“Cannibals,” Gingrich called them.